As Walter Dean Myers says in the introduction to Antarctica, his fascination with the earth’s coldest regions began, appropriately enough, during the Cold War, when he was on the U.
S. Shadwell on a military mission taking supplies to a remote base inside the Arctic Circle. By the time the mission was over, he had gained “a new respect for the power of nature and for the explorers and adventurers who dared to risk the cold and ice at a time when nobody knew what to expect.” Now Myers has written “a testament to human courage, persistence, and daring.” Antarctica was not there just to test adventurers’ skill and nerve. It became a pawn in nations’ attempts to gain land, power and profit. Furthering scientific understanding was a later, worthier goal, which continues today with the international research base in the region.
Antarctica, the fifth-largest continent, was “the last unexplored landmass on Earth.” In 1773, Commander James Cook became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. Much of the early traveling in the area was by sealers, backed by commercial interests, but what they saw first was often in dispute since records and journals were not always kept. The Royal Geographical Society in England was one of the scientific forces that garnered government support for research expeditions, such as that of Sir James Clark Ross, who discovered land farther south than anyone had ever been and saw an active volcano.
Exploration waned in the second half of the 19th century with industrial conflicts in Europe and the Civil War in the United Sates, but in 1909, Robert E. Peary reached the North Pole, leaving only one grand destination for those who sought the fame of reaching a geographic pole: the South Pole. Roald Amundsen’s expedition succeeded, Robert Falcon Scott’s was a deadly disaster, and Ernest Shackleton’s voyage on the Endurance has become the stuff of legend, one of the all-time great tales of endurance and survival. By the time Richard Byrd added “first Antarctic flight” to the chronology of firsts, technology was changing the world of exploration, to the point where the continent is now linked to the rest of the world through telephone, television and the Internet. Myers ends with a discussion of international agreements among 40 nations protecting Antarctica. If a similar spirit of cooperation and protection had existed in this country, perhaps the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be more than the “slimmest of rumors.” Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.